Thinking outside the box

Thinking outside the box (also thinking out of the box[1][2] or thinking beyond the box and, especially in Australia, thinking outside the square[3]) is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. The phrase also often refers to novel or creative thinking.

History

The origin of the phrase is unclear. "Think beyond the boundary"-metaphors, that is, metaphors that allude to think differently or with less constraints, seem to have an old history. For example, in 1888, The Annual Register records the phrase think outside the lines.[4][5]

Since at least 1954, the nine dots puzzle has been used as a metaphor of the type "think beyond the boundary". Early phrasings include go outside the dots (1954),[6][7] breakthrough thinking that gets outside the nine-dot square (1959),[8][9] and what are the actual boundaries of the problem? (1963).[10][7]

The "nine dots" puzzle and its solution. The goal of the puzzle is to link all 9 dots using four straight lines or less, without lifting the pen.

In 1969, Norman Vincent Peale writes this in an article for the Chicago Tribune, quote:[11][12]

There is one particular puzzle you may have seen. It's a drawing of a box with some dots in it, and the idea is to connect all the dots by using only four lines. You can work on that puzzle, but the only way to solve it is to draw the lines so they connect outside the box. It's so simple once you realize the principle behind it. But if you keep trying to solve it inside the box, you'll never be able to master that particular puzzle.

That puzzle represents the way a lot of people think. They get caught up inside the box of their own lives. You've got to approach any problem objectively. Stand back and see it for exactly what it is. From a little distance, you can see it a lot more clearly. Try and get a different perspective, a fresh point of view. Step outside the box your problem has created within you and come at it from a different direction.

All of a sudden, just like the puzzle, you'll see how to handle your problem. And just like the four lines that connect all the dots, you'll discover the course of action that's just right in order to set your life straight.

In 1970, the phrase think outside the dots appears without mentioning the nine dots puzzle.[13][7]

Finally, in 1971, the specific phrase think outside the box is attested, again appearing together with the nine dots puzzle.[14][15] In 1976, the phrase is used in England[16] and 1978 in the USA,[17] both without mentioning the nine dots puzzle.

Beyond the above attestations, there are several unconfirmed accounts of how the phrase got introduced. According to Martin Kihn, it goes back to management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s challenging their clients to solve the "nine dots" puzzle.[18] According to John Adair, he introduced the nine dots puzzle in 1969, from which the saying comes.[19] According to The Creative Thinking Association of America, Mike Vance popularized the phrase "thinking out of the box".[20] Moreover, it is claimed that the use of the nine-dot puzzle in consultancy circles stems from the corporate culture of the Walt Disney Company, where the puzzle was used in-house.[citation needed]

References

1. ^ "box - definition of box in English - Oxford Dictionaries". Archived from the original on November 21, 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
2. ^ "think outside the box - Definition, meaning & more - Collins Dictionary". Retrieved 21 November 2016.
3. ^ "Thinking Outside The Square". Retrieved 21 November 2016.
4. ^ The Annual Register: a review of public events at home and abroad, for the year 1887. London: Rivingtons, Waterloo Place. 1888. p. 168. [Lord Hartington] said that [...] the Liberal party became a one-man party, which scarcely ventured to think outside the lines prescribed by its dictator.
5. ^ O'Toole, Garson (2010-05-03). "Antedating of "Outside the Box"".
6. ^ Anderson, John F. (1954-10-30). "Down to Earth". Dallas Morning News. p. 1. An instructor at M.I.T. began his course with a group of graduate students one day by walking to the blackboard and drawing nine dots in this fashion [...] We are not here to go through old routines. Don't let your thinking be contained in a small square of knowledge. Learn to go outside the dots and you may be the one to solve man's most puzzling problems.
7. ^ a b c Wilton, David (2021-07-19). "think outside the box". Wordorigins.org.
8. ^ Humphrey, Hal (1959-11-13). "'Breakthrough thinking' gets outside 9-dot square". Detroit Free Press. p. 41. One of our biggest advertising agencies [writes] "Breakthrough thinking is the fresh approach, the new concept, that gets outside the nine-dot square."
9. ^ Tréguer, Pascal (2021-04-28). "'to think outside the box': meaning and origin". word histories.
10. ^ Platzer, Norbert A. J. (1963-04-18). "Incentiveness, Motivation, Training Needs of a Scientist". The Springfield Union. p. 52. [...] the next aplitude for creative thinking [is] defining the problem. We must ask ourselves: "What are the actual boundaries of the problem?" Perhaps some of you have seen this little problem before. Here are nine dots [...]. This teaches us, we should avoid imposing limitations that are not in our problem, as I told you before in the cases of Kettering and Reppe.
11. ^ Peale, Norman Vincent (1969-10-25). "Blackmail Is the Problem". Chicago Tribune. p. 13.
12. ^ Liberman, Mark (2005-06-02). "Language Log: X-ing outside the Y".
13. ^ Westell, Anthony (1970-05-23). "Canada Entering Big League In Research". Ottawa Journal. p. 7. The problem, says William Dav[i]d Hopper, is to think "outside the dots" about the questions of how to feed a hungry world. He means that the need is to think imaginatively, creatively, about the development of less-developed countries, and not merely to keep pouring more money and technology into patterns of foreign aid established, not very successfully, over the past 20 years.
14. ^ Notaro, Michael R. (1971). "Management of Personnel: Organization Patterns and Techniques". Data Management. Vol. 9/#9. Data Processing Management Organization. p. 77.
15. ^ "box, n.2". OED Online. Oxford University Press.
16. ^ Hall, David (1976-07-18). "Ex officer's strategy for business success". Sunday Telegraph. p. 24. [...] it is abundantly clear that Service people can turn their hand to many jobs provided they can think "outside the box."
17. ^ Robert S., Mendelsohn (1978-03-31). "People's Doctor". The Newark Advocate. p. 10. Some of my best teachers have been those who utilize the techniques of shock and surprise to rouse me out of conventional habits of thought, forcing me to question accepted teaching and stimulating me to think "outside the box."
18. ^ Kihn, Martin. "'Outside the Box': the Inside Story," FastCompany 1995
19. ^ Adair, John (2007). The art of creative thinking how to be innovative and develop great ideas. London Philadelphia: Kogan Page. p. 127. ISBN 9780749452186.
20. ^ Biography of Mike Vance at Creative Thinking Association of America.